Manchild in the Promised Land
A Kobe Bryant SLAM cover story originally published in March, 1998.
“From day one, I was dribbling,” Kobe says. “I just found basketball to be the most fun. It wasn’t just watching my father play. It was the fact that you could just dribble the ball around everywhere. You could play the game by yourself and envision certain situations.”
Shaya Bryant, 20, Kobe’s older sister, stands 6-2 and is Kobe’s constant running partner. She’s the middle child—their sister Sharia is a senior at Temple, a volleyball player with a 30-inch vertical. As Shaya watches her brother run shooting drills up and down Southwest’s hardwood floors, she remarks that basketball hasn’t changed him a bit.
“He loves being under pressure, being the one called on to make those kinds of shots,” she says. “When he first came home, he was a little sad, like, ‘Damn, I should have made them,’ [referring to the Utah airballs] but then my father talked to him. It could have happened to anybody. I tell you this much—he’s been practicing that shot like crazy.”
Kobe takes a break, wiping sweat from his brow. “The important thing is that you continue to grow,” he says. “You always have to have that long-term goal in mind. For me? I wanted to play in the NBA after my senior year in high school. That was it. People want to hang out with you all day, and you have girls trying to call you at all times of the night, and you can’t concentrate on your homework. I tried to keep stuff at arm’s length. I just wanted to play the game at its highest level—and there’s nothing like learning from the best players in the world.”
Why do you love it so much?
He pauses. Then he smiles, full wattage. “I don’t know, it just is. I love basketball so much. I have so much fire. Sometimes I get so angry, and sometimes I get so happy. It’s an emotional roller coaster. It’s a part of me, man. It’s like heaven to go out there and compete against a guy, and try and think about picking his game apart in a slick, calm way.
“I just go out and play.”
Later, Kobe is tooling around Culver City at the wheel of his brand-new Navigator, on the way to the Fox Hills mall. He just had a $6,800 stereo installed at a place Shaq recommended. He’s wearing his own line of adidas clothes, and his own sneaker, the fast-selling KB8. The system is blasting a song by CHEIZAW, the rap crew that Kobe formed with Philly friends Anthony Banister, Russell Howard (a.k.a. The Golden One), Kevin Sanchez, Akia Stone and others…and the song sounds dope. A Jimi Hendrix “All Along The Watchtower” sample loops into oblivion, and Kobe has rap skills, coming off like a deep-voiced version of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Rebel INS a.k.a. Rollie Fingers—Inspectah Dek.
He’s living the American Dream. And he knows it.
“As easy as God gives it to you, he can take it away from you,” he says. “What I’m doing right now is cool, but you have to touch people in a positive way. The Lord has blessed me with the ability to play basketball. It’s bigger than putting a ball in a hoop. You’re not just out there to showcase your skills in front of millions of people. That’s just the icing on the cake. That’s how I see it.”
November 18, ’97. Salt Lake City, Utah. Doesn’t matter where Kobe Bryant is—the fans love him. Even with the animosity fans have toward Shaq for bitch-slapping Greg Ostertag, and the overall jealousy they have of anyone wearing a Lakers’ uniform, the young star is mobbed—especially in the lobby of his hotel.
“Can I get an autograph?” one young woman asks. Soon there’s a whole group, clamoring, holding up basketballs, snippets of paper and t-shirts. Doesn’t matter that the kid has payback on his mind. He signs them all with a smile.
He plops down in a chair for a moment, the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s wearing a black adidas flop hat, a black leather jacket and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, cool as a muthafucka. There’s no stress on his face—even if it’s in his brain.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he says, adjusting his glasses. “When I walked onto the court this morning for shootaround and saw the basket, that’s when it all came back. Up until that point, I hadn’t thought about it at all. Somebody had to take those shots, and I was going to take them—I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I made them, I would have been the hero. If I missed them, I would have been the dog.
“All the other games I played up until tonight don’t mean a thing.” He shakes my hand and walks for the door, cap slumped low, headphones on. He’s got a Goliath to take out with his slingshot. It’s on.
And suddenly, it’s the fourth quarter. Stakes is high. Again.
The Jazz have led for most of the game, but the Lakers are catching up. Eddie Jones is on fire, with nine of his 15 points coming from behind the three-point line. Nick Van Exel is dishing the ball left and right.
And the kid is back in the game, Kobe Bryant. Hitting shots. Pulling down defensive rebounds. He doesn’t make any three-pointers—but they do hit the rim this time around. There’s a poise, a confidence that wasn’t there last year. He’s really ready.
With 1:35 left on the clock, Van Exel hits a running 13-footer, tying the game at 92. Jazz swingman Bryon Russell gets the ball and launches a 17-footer…clank! A few seconds later Kobe gets the ball, and as he drives to the hoop, he’s fouled by Russell. He goes to the line. The game is in the kid’s hands again.
He stands at the line, sweat pouring down his face. His afro is uncombed, ruffled. His eyes are determined, as if he’s saying to himself, ‘Come on, man, this is your chance. You got to do this.’
Kobe lofts the ball, his long right arm outstretched to the sky, his hand flopping out at a 90 degree angle.
Silence. He does it again.
He smiles to himself, but doesn’t have time to enjoy the moment. The score is 94-92 Lakers, and there’s still a full minute left on the clock.
Laker forward Rick Fox steals a bad pass from Greg Foster and is almost immediately fouled by Hornacek. He goes to the line, hits one of two. Karl Malone gets the rebound, and the Jazz are within three.
Three seconds on the clock, the ball goes out to Russell, who’s guarded by Kobe. Russell puts up a three that is…blocked by Bryant. Kobe controls the ball, runs the entire length of the court, leaps through the air, stretches his body like a bird in flight and slams it home.
97-92 Lakers. Game over.
Stoic Del Harris, a man whose demeanor is normally as nondescript as his gray Donna Karan suits, is the first to lose his mind. “HOW ABOUT KOBE BRYANT TAKING THE LAST SHOT OF THE GAME TONIGHT!!!” he screams, nearly losing his glasses, pounding the scorer’s table with such fury you feel the force of the blows from three rows up.
Kobe leaps into Shaq’s open arms like a little kid.
Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?
Harris is still flushed when he relives the moment in front of a throng of reporters outside of the locker room. “I told him I hoped that he got the last shot tonight—but that we were up 15,” Del says with a laugh. “I felt so bad for him last year. He told me today, ‘If you give it to me again, I’ll drain it this time.’”
What about the block? If Russell was fouled, he would have gone to the line for three free-throws.
“In the NBA, just like the game of life, you just have to roll the dice,” Kobe Bryant says, sitting in his locker, surrounded by a horde of media. “You’re never gonna win a championship unless you roll the dice. I’m willing to do that.”